The ‘walking’ batsman

The ‘walking’ batsman

The practice of “walking" is one of cricket’s longest-standing controversies. It came to the fore again recently, though in two contrasting incidents. In the first, Australian captain Ricky Ponting stood his ground when the umpire adjudged him “not out", despite Ponting knowing that he had nicked a delivery behind the wicket. In the second, India’s Sachin Tendulkar “walked" after having similarly nicked the ball, though he too had been adjudged safe.

To be sure, to walk or not is a player’s personal decision. Beyond the obvious question of honesty, it can also be contingent on the match situation, and the same batsman can make different decisions under different circumstances. If your team loses because you walk, then moral uprightness comes at the cost of performance. Having been adjudged out by a third umpire, Ponting later said: “There were no doubts about the nick, I knew I hit it, but as always I wait for the umpire to give me out. That’s the way I’ve always played the game."

The history of walking is as gray as its current status. It wasn’t, as is often believed, a mythical practice in a utopian past when cricket was still a gentleman’s game. Walking only became the generally right thing to do after World War II—what writer David Haviland describes as a “kind of symbol of a dying era of sportsmanship". Mike Brearley, former England captain, said: “By the early 1960s anyone who did not walk was considered a cheat."

Perhaps that was too harsh, inasmuch as cheating constitutes a use of unfair means. But not walking is an act that takes advantage of either a human or a technological lapse in judgement. For its defenders, the end in a way justifies the means.

The most persuasive argument these defenders make is that not walking is in the larger interest of the team, and hence it is perfectly fine. But this kind of rationalizing sounds good in realpolitik, not on the field of cricket. Garnering runs is crucial for a batsman, but so is the style with which he plays. Winning is desirable (that is the end of a game), but also important are the means (the contrasting metric of a sport). The former is a measure of the game’s beauty, the latter of its spirit.

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